Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. Sadly the Cabinet Secretary is not with you so we cannot ask him how content he was with this process.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) He was content that it was appropriate for the Government to publish it.

  61. A number of politicians who spoke in the question and answer session when it was brought before the House in July pointed out that the power the Government has in this as a propaganda tool is in what it leaves out as much as what it puts in. Again I quote from Mr Hague who studied this document very carefully. There were a number of key manifesto pledges—no tax increases at all, which the Government quibbles about but it was what they said before the election—which were not referred to in the document at all.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is referred to in the list of manifesto pledges on the website. This is the Government's account of itself. It is perfectly open to members of Opposition Parties, to members of the press, to say "this is what we think the conclusions are which we would draw from what the report says that we have done or from other material", but it is important that the Government—any Government—does set out how it sees the previous 12 months. It is inconceivable that once a Government has set out what it perceived it had achieved over the last 12 months that the Opposition would not say "we disagree with this, we think this is wrong and we think the right conclusions to draw are this, that and the next thing". Simply to keep quoting what the Leader of the Opposition said about the report does not seem to me to be much of an indication about whether it is a good or a bad thing to publish the report.

  62. I have been open and transparent about these things. These points were made by Mr Hague and they are good points, clear points. If the Government had not got into such trouble politically in a day-to-day, week-to-week way with its ethical foreign policy surely this would be one of the standards by which you would wish to be judged?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I cannot remember what it said about foreign policy in the document.

  63. Ethics is not heavily laid on there.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) You are making party political points about the substance of our politics, which is perfectly legitimate, but what I am saying is that it is right that a Government sets out its stall in a document like this, it should not be party political in order to satisfy the Civil Service Rules but it is right that it should feel obliged every year to bring it together. Yes, you can criticise what you think is wrong with our policies but what would be even more wrong would be if we did not feel obliged to produce the report and then defend ourselves against such ill-judged criticisms as you may wish to make about it.

  64. I am afraid this is a tendency in all modern governments whatever political party is in power, and the Conservative Party when it was in power had a tendency to produce documents not quite of this pomposity but of a similar kind. I cannot imagine that it is fulfilling any useful purpose. How many people bought it?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Ten thousand, I think.

  Mr Trend: What survey work have you done of its impact? One hundred people wrote to you about it and I am sorry I did not now. That is a pathetic take-up for what is supposed to be a—


  65. I do not think Mr Trend likes this.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I do not think Mr Trend likes it. But if you said to Mr Trend that these White Papers that are published and sold rarely break into three figures in terms of the sales that are made, that does not make it wrong to do the publication of such things. Surely the important thing is that it is incredibly important that a Government does try to engage as wide a waterfront of the public as possible in what it is doing? If what it does leads people to say "you are doing it wrong, you have not described it right", that may or may not be right but the critical thing is the obligation, that has not been undertaken by any previous Government, to come forward with an Annual Report of what it does each year. In principle that must be a good thing. Of course there are things that can be said about how we could make it better, that we should have more statistics, although I query whether that would make it more interesting although it may make it a more meaty document, but the principle is right.

Mr Trend

  66. The main thrust of the press reports, and I suspect of Members who have looked at this report, is that the document is getting worse and not better.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We need to try and make it better. The principle of the document, I would assert, is a good thing.


  67. Before I pass it along, could I put Michael Trend's questions in a more temperate way? One could put the question like this: those of us who not only think the Government is doing a good job but know that the Government is doing a good job and who very much approve of the idea of a reporting exercise and want it to succeed are troubled by the fact that it will only do that job if it has credibility.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I agree with that.

  68. If it is thought to be party or presentational, that it does not have credibility, then it will not succeed in the objective, and that was the real criticism from the Government's friends of it. Is that not the compelling argument, that it is in Government's own interest to get some sort of external validation of some of this so that at least then you would be immune from these kind of criticisms that Michael Trend has been advancing because you would be able to wave credibility in his face?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I could not agree more with the proposition that the report has to be credible in order to be a worthwhile accountable exercise. As I said in relation to independent validation, it is very difficult to think how you would actually do it in a way that was convincing, because ultimately what you are doing is giving some statistics describing what you are doing and saying to Parliament and the world at large, "This is a Report, do you agree or disagree with our assessment?"

  69. I gather that the National Audit Office, as far as I understand it, are quite happy to engage in an exercise to say whether these figures are right or not.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) They would refuse, I am sure, to validate the contents of the report, not because they agree or disagree with it, but because they would not regard that as their role.

  70. Would it be useful to have discussions with them?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I would certainly have discussions with the National Audit Office as to what they would be prepared to validate and what they would not be prepared to validate. All tentative discussions that one has with the NAO or the ONS leads to the conclusion they are reluctant to be involved in validating documents that have substantial prose in them, because they are only focused on a very limited area.

  71. This is something that you will explore.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I will.

Mr Tyrie

  72. We have before us one of the most affable ministers and also one of the most able ministers in Government engaged in what I think must be one of the most difficult jobs, which is to justify this Report.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I disagree with the second part.

  73. I was going to add "one of the most modest" but I now feel I have to choke that back! I found it very difficult even to make sense of the highly simplistic presentation of the report. For example, if we go to page 23, could you tell me what that means?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Beacon School in Birmingham.

  74. I have a health chart here. The pages are not numbered individually, they are numbered in pairs, which is also a bit confusing, if I may say so. Pages are normally numbered individually. Can you tell me what this illustration means?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is a photograph of a—

  75. We can see what it is, what is its significance?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is an illustration which makes the thing more easy to read and more attractive. There has been a lot of criticism made by Mr Trend of the dull nature of the document, this is to make it less dull.

  Mr Trend: I think there are going to be no nurses in the year 2000, and hospitals are going to be closed in 2002.

Mr Tyrie

  76. Presumably you went through this report carefully and somebody somewhere in government read it from cover to cover, I hope, and looked at the illustrations, all of them. Here we have one, which even though the issue I am now raising was raised on the day of publication in the House by Peter Brooke still nobody in the Government has been able to tell us what the illustration means. Is this really any way to go about producing a publication that is meant to inform the public about the Government's activities?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) That is a totally unfair question, if I may say so. The document is filled with photographs, take the one on crime, there is a photograph of a pair of handcuffs.

  77. I was taking the one on page 24, I am sure you are capable of finding somewhere at least one illustration that means something, I am talking about one that I am not sure means anything.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) There are photographs and graphics in the document designed to make the document easier to read and more interesting to look at. That seems to me to be a perfectly legitimate thing to do to make the document more readable to the public. As Mr Trend was saying, quite rightly, that is one thing you would want to do to make it more palatable.

  Chairman: It would be very helpful if you could at some point, having taken advice, come back and tell us what this packet of pills means.

  Mr Tyrie: And if there is a hidden meaning?


  78. The sentence before it says, "Improvements are starting to come through", and one would expect that sentence to be reflected in the packet of pills. For the life of me I cannot work it out, and you clearly cannot either, but it would be helpful if at some point you could.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I sought to defend it in more general terms.

  Chairman: If you were to try to explain it to us at some point, after taking appropriate advice, it would be helpful.

Mr Tyrie

  79. Can I ask you few more general questions about the Government's publications which, obviously, you are not necessarily responsible for. Have you had a look at the Red Book?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) That covers the budget, yes.

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